Many horse owners dream of pastures filled with lush green grass; free of mud, rocks, and other hazards; and devoid of weeds and unwanted plants. Many horse owners’ reality? Something slightly less idyllic—desirable forage grazed down regularly, invasive or other unwelcome plants taking over, and a muddy high-traffic area that seems to get bigger by the day.
While the muddy messes are, indeed, their own animal to manage, there’s an easy and effective solution for overgrown pastures that could benefit from additional space for preferable forages to prosper: goats.
Last year, Michigan horse farm owner Bess Ohlgren–Miller realized that an influx of invasive plants (including autumn olive, buckthorn, and multiflora rose) was reducing the amount of forage available in her farm’s pastures and turned to Michigan State University (MSU) Extension agents for help. After determining that mechanical and chemical plant removal weren’t viable options (they were deemed too expensive or ill-advised due to water-quality concerns), the agents thought a biological option—using goats to eat the unwelcome plants—might be a solution.
At the 2017 Equine Science Society Symposium, Thomas Guthrie, MS, an MSU Extension agent based in Jackson, shared what happened when he and colleagues employed 15 yearling Boer cross goats to browse and defoliate undesirable plant species, thus improving forage availability in pastures.
The study, which spanned from May through September 2016 included three phases: a nine-day acclimation period, an 11-day transition phase, and a 93-day reclamation period.
“The nine-day acclimation period served the purpose to ensure goats, residing equids, farm owner, and farm business clientele had the opportunity to adjust to one another,” Guthrie said. While the goats initially caused some excitement among the equine population, the horses soon became tolerant of the new farm residents, he added.
Also during the acclimation period, a veterinarian examined the goats, including collecting their weights, to ensure they were in good health going into the study. The team weighed the goats every 21 days, as well. They used this data to gauge the goats’ health throughout the study.
During the transition period, Guthrie said the researchers assessed the goats’ browsing skills and behavior.
“This period of the study created the opportunity to modify management practices if needed to handle goats, get them trained to following an individual into a pen, allow time for goats to become accustomed to electro net fencing, as well as evaluate how, what, and when goats preferred to browse,” Guthrie said.
During the longer reclamation period, the goats browsed and grazed a 1.21-hectare (about three acres) plot that included 50% invasive, undesirable plant species and 10% desirable forages for 12 hours per day. They remained in a smaller pen for the remaining 12 hours to protect them against predators; the goats also received grass hay and corn as supplemental feed during the housing period.
The team monitored and documented the goats’ progress throughout the study period.
The goats proved highly effective at reducing unwelcome plants in the pasture—Guthrie said they consume 90% of the available undesirable browse. To boot, their overall average weight was nearly unchanged; they averaged 90.6 pounds on Day 1 and 90.8 pounds on Day 93.
Video Courtesy Thomas Guthrie
He told The Horse that he wasn’t surprised how effective the goats were at defoliating the land. “But I was intrigued by how efficiently they seemed to work as a team when browsing,” he said (see video at left). This led him to conclude that small ruminants such as goats “are effective at defoliating invasive plant species. Defoliation of underbrush allows for time-efficient cleanup and clearing work to reclaim a once-established equine pasture.”
Intrigued? Guthrie offered some advice for horse owners considering defoliating pastures using goats:
- Have a good perimeter fence to keep predators out and goats in, “otherwise you may be frequently rounding them up,” he said;
- Consider keeping goats and horses separate, as goats might chew horses’ manes and tails, and horses might accidentally injure goats;
- How many goats you’ll need depends on how large of an area you have and how quickly you want it cleared, said Guthrie. He used five goats per acre in this study;
- While certain breeds aren’t necessarily more desirable than others, larger breeds can reach higher during browsing, Guthrie said. “However, it is important to utilize goats that are acclimated to browsing for a job like this,” he said. “Many assume that goats will automatically know what to do and they will eat anything. This is not necessarily true. If goats have not been acclimated to browsing it may take them some time to figure out their job instead of looking for who is going to feed them.”
The bottom line: “Be sure to plan ahead if you plan on bringing goats to your farm,” Guthrie said. “Consider equine-goat interaction, appropriate fencing to keep goats in and predators out, housing, and day-to-day logistical management of both horses and goats.”